Susan J. Demas: Schuette Vs. Snyder: How the AG Is Maneuvering to Be Michigan’s Next Governor

The conventional wisdom is that Michigan will have a Democratic governor on January 1, 2019.

  Dave Trumpie/Dome Magazine

Dave Trumpie/Dome Magazine

Term-limited Gov. Rick Snyder –– who squeaked by in his ‘14 re-election fight, which Republicans openly wondered if he was trying to lose –– is now the third-least popular governor in the country. He’s taken hits over his administration’s callousness and incompetence over the Flint water crisis.

But that wouldn’t have wounded him so deeply if voters were enamored with his business tax cuts, roads plan and education policy. The truth is, the bloom has been off the rose for awhile. This isn’t unique to Snyder; it’s typical of many second-term governors. What isn’t clear is what Snyder can do to bounce back.

Naturally, Democrats are thrilled at the prospect of ‘18 being a referendum on Snyder. Their two likeliest nominees, U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) and interim Ingham County Prosecutor Gretchen Whitmer, are chomping at the bit.

Snyder’s unenviable numbers put any would-be Republican successor in a bind. It’s not difficult to see why there’s little enthusiasm for a Lt. Gov. Brian Calley candidacy, even though the 39-year-old has made it clear that he expects to live in the governor’s mansion one day.

You would think Attorney General Bill Schuette would be similarly hamstrung. After all, he’s appeared on the GOP ticket with Snyder for the past two elections. He’s also known as being even more conservative than the governor, which isn’t the kind of change Michigan voters would typically endorse after tiring of Snyder.

But Schuette just may be able to pull this off.

This week, he stood with teachers and broke with Snyder. After the Court of Appeals ordered the governor to return $550 million to school employees to fund retirement health care, Schuette announced he wouldn’t defend Snyder if he appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court –– knowing full well that the stubborn governor would do exactly that.

Yes, Bill Schuette –– the toast of the Tea Party who’s fought same-sex marriage, Obamacare and affirmative action right up to the Supreme Court –– just did a solid for a core Democratic constituency. He veered left without breaking a sweat. (Sure, he argued the case was unwinnable, but let’s not forget that didn’t dissuade him on marriage equality).

Most importantly, Schuette knew he would earn headlines for his chilly relationship with Snyder. This comes on the heels of the AG’s very public rebuke of the administration’s lack of cooperation in his Flint investigation.

This is hardly a recent development. Last year, Schuette came out against Snyder’s roads tax hike known as Proposal 1. The AG also fought for pensioners’ rights during the Detroit bankruptcy.

In fact, Snyder and Schuette have chafed from the get-go, as have their staffs (notably, Schuette’s team hasn’t changed much, whereas Snyder’s front office has been somewhat of a revolving door).

Part of the tension is organic. The two men come from very different backgrounds, aside from being high-achieving lawyers and proud dads.

Snyder is a new-money venture capitalist who never ran for office before jumping into a self-funded gubernatorial bid. Schuette is a country-club Republican and accordingly, has been loath to rely on his family fortune throughout his lengthy career in government, as a congressman, Agriculture Department Director, state senator, judge and finally AG.

The differences are more than skin deep. As someone who spent his career in the business tech world, Snyder is disdainful of crass campaigning, political horse-trading and the lumbering pace of government (hence his now-faded motto of “working in dog years.”)

Schuette, on the other hand, genuinely enjoys the coffee klatch circuit and cutting political deals. He believes deeply in public service, as do his ever-loyal advisers, which is why he’s devoted his life to it. For Snyder, being governor is just phase two of his storied career before he goes into academia (where he will, no doubt, declare that the institution needs a Snyder-style wholesale reimagining –– call it “College 3.0”).

It’s also worth noting that the interests of the governor and attorney general aren’t always in sync, even when they’re both from the same party. The AG is the people’s lawyer, not the governor’s personal attorney.

But Schuette most likely did make the calculation back in 2010 that he’d need to craft a separate persona from Snyder to secure his own future. It’s not that he expected a Michigan city to be poisoned –– no one did. This is just what adroit political animals do.

After all, the AG couldn’t be tied at the hip to a failed governor if Snyder lost in 2014. On the other hand, if the governor was re-elected, Calley would then be the logical choice for those hungering for a third Snyder term. And if Snyder fell from grace in later years, the Democrats would have the upper hand in 2018, making it critical for Republicans to have an untarnished nominee.

Indeed, Schuette will have to be his own man in order to escape the Snyder stain. It’s a perilously narrow path that boasts few recent success stories. John McCain came close in 2008 –– his disdain for George W. Bush was certainly real –– but just being a Republican was enough to do him in.

Can Schuette really expect to fare any better? All I know is that people underestimate the attorney general at their own peril.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.